INTERVIEW: Janis Susan May

Welcome to Janis Susan May. She has two books out with Vinspire Publishing.

What inspired you to write your first book?

Boredom. Real life was so bland compared to the explosion of excitement that went on between my ears. Wait – are we talking my first book, or my first grown-up book? It doesn’t really make any difference, though, since the answer is the same. My very first book was written when I was four. It was about some children who were playing in a park and captured a lion escaped from the zoo before going home to dinner. Not the most gripping of storylines, but remember, I was four! I cut typing paper to the exact size of a paperback book, hand-printed the copy and illustrated it myself, then sewed the pages together. I think I made six copies before becoming thoroughly bored with the process (sort of a leit-motif in my life, I think…). That’s when I decided to become a writer instead of a publisher. I think there’s still a copy extant somewhere in my late mother’s papers. I should dig it out and take a look.

My first grown-up book also grew out of boredom with my life at the time. I was young and in my first apartment and had my first job. I was also thoroughly put out that my parents had gone to spend part of the summer in Mexico, as we did for a couple of years, and because I was ‘grown-up’ and ‘on my own’ I couldn’t go! So, I started writing, imagining a trip to Mexico that was so very much more exciting than any real ones I had made. The resultant novel was WHERE SHADOWS LINGER, which Dell Publishing brought out in 1979. After that, there was no stopping me – at least, until some eight books later my mother fell victim to a lingering, horrible illness that would eventually be her last, and in order to take care of her both physically and financially I had to give up writing for ten years.

Do you have a specific writing style?

Yes. My detractors call it wordy, with too many big words and convoluted sentences. I call it erudite, literate and grown-up. I would have said Adult, but that word has taken on an unfortunate connotation these days. I pay my readers the respect of assuming (I know, some say never assume) that my readers are intelligent and capable of reading on a grown-up level. I find sex on the page tedious, so you won’t ever find lubricious sex scenes in my books. Love, romance and sexual tension, yes, but no mechanical details. As I said, tedious.

How did you come up with the title?

On which of my Vinspire books? DARK MUSIC, my first Vinspire book, was originally titled MURDER BY THE BOOK, since it’s about a series of murders at a writers’ convention. Our own extravagantly talented Dawn came up with the DARK MUSIC title, which is so perfect as the hero is a classical pianist who specializes in Chopin.

Short anecdote – when I first wrote DARK MUSIC I was living in an apartment. For atmosphere, I also played Chopin constantly. Towards the end of the book my neighbors were begging to know when I would be finished and the Chopin would stop. It was a cheap apartment with walls of tissue paper, by the way. I reminded them that I never complained about the husband’s snoring, which was louder than my music!

As for ECHOES IN THE DARK (which is probably one of my top three favorites of all the books I have ever written) that was my original title. It works on so many ways. The heroine is lost in the dark physically for part of the book. A lot of the action takes place in the dark. There are echoes of her past that darkly affect her present and future. There are also echoes of past events going back to the War of Northern Aggression that drive the present story. It’s hard to explain, but believe me, it works.

Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?

I’m not big on ‘messages’ in fiction, other than the cosmic, overarching ones – good will triumph over evil, good manners are essential, true love is possible, freedom is a God-given right that must be defended – that sort of thing. I’m a storyteller, and I write stories about the world I want to live in, because no matter what is going on outside, while I’m writing it I can live there. And maybe I have a little bit of hope that my writings can make other people feel the same things I do… so maybe I am into messages after all.

Are experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own life?

I try to create my characters and experiences from my imagination, because if I lift them from real life, I become a reporter instead of a novelist. Sometimes a person or incident will make me start thinking, will give me the spark of an idea, but by the time I get through twisting it and turning it and letting my imagination have full sway, there is little or no resemblance to the original. For example, the hotels in DARK MUSIC and in ECHOES IN THE DARK both had their genesis in real hotels where I have stayed, but by the time I got through with them it would be hard to identify either one. Plus, that way you don’t get sued. Owners of real places usually don’t like their establishments associated with murder and other assorted nasties!

As for writing my personal experiences… I learned early on not to put my own experiences in a book. No one ever believed them! After working on a film in the Middle East a generation or so ago, I wrote a romantic adventure based on some of my experiences, except I gave it a happy ending, something my hero of the moment and I didn’t have. I sent it to my then agent, who read it and laughed and said it was the best send-up of romantic adventure she’d ever seen and she loved a good parody. I told her it wasn’t a parody, and a goodly number of the things in the book actually happened – and that I had left out the really wild things, most of which I proceeded to tell her. She was silent for a long time, then told me because she had known me for years she believed me – but no one else ever would. The book languished ‘under the bed’ for many years until an e-pub picked it up a couple of years ago – and after I had toned it down a little.

What books have most influenced your life most?

Good grief, what a totally unanswerable question. I believe that everything which happens to us – incidents, books we read, people we meet, places we go, everything – influences us. To choose a few books that have influenced me ‘the most’ would be a lifetime’s project. Of course, I live in a house with three dedicated libraries, have 1,600+ books on my Kindle and maybe three times that many in my cloud reader, so perhaps my choice might be harder than others.

If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor?

The late, great and much lamented Dr. Barbara Mertz, aka Elizabeth Peters and Barbara Michaels. Besides being a personal friend, she was an excellent, intelligent and innovative writer whose work I loved long before we met. Reading her books inspired me to work as a novelist.

What book are you reading now?

Of Dooms and Death by Dennis Somebody-or-other. It’s a medieval mystery, part of a series (and I usually hate series!) about Joslin deLay, a French minstrel traveling about England seeking to solve the secret of his birth.

What are your current projects?

Oh, Law! I never work on less than four at any given time, mainly because I bore very easily, and if I’m bored, the reader will be too. At the moment I am working on :

A Well-Mannered Murder, in which a paid researcher uncovers a scandal at a long-closed finishing school which someone will kill to keep secret.

The Egyptian File – a romantic adventure about a woman who inherits a mysterious file leading to an unimaginable treasure for which someone will kill. Aided by a mysterious cab driver she must flee across Egypt to solve the puzzle and to stay out of the hands of her unknown enemies.

Curse Of The Exile – a traditional Gothic set in 1850s Scotland where a female librarian finds both love and danger in a remote castle housing two handsome men, a murderous ghost and a long-forgotten treasure of gold.

The Widow of Westover Hall – a contemporary traditional Gothic in which a young wife must not only battle a predatory female to preserve her marriage, but overcome the ghosts of those who died in a fire whose existence only she knows about.

Welcome Home – a romantic women’s fiction story about a young jet-set heiress who comes to a small East Texas town to settle the estate of her late, estranged grandfather. There she finds a stalker, an unknown enemy, a town dying because of her grandfather’s arrogance and perhaps her own redemption.

Name one entity that you feel supported you outside of family members.

I am blessed to have a supportive family and cadre of friends. As for ‘entity’ I’m not sure. As a founder of RWA I had great hopes for that organization, but when it became primarily for the benefit of the unpublished with little or nothing for the published, I was disappointed, though I love the personal camaraderie of my chapters. Nope – family and friends. That’s it.

Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?

Easy – genetically. One grandfather was the publisher of a small newspaper, back when small newspapers were a power to be reckoned with; both grandmothers were teachers at one time; my mother was a play producer, teacher, magazine columnist and advertising agent; my father was a printer’s devil at the age of nine, editor and publisher of several small newspapers, writer of articles and radio shows, speechmaker and fund-raiser, journalism teacher (he was the one who separated the journalism department from the English department at Texas A&M, an action sadly reversed in the last few years) and, with my mother, began an advertising agency that was in the top 300 in the nation as rated by AADA for every year of its existence. I didn’t have a snowball’s chance of being anything else but a wordsmith of some stripe. By the way, I was first paid for writing when I was nine years old.

Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?

Sitting down to do it. The world is so full of wonderful things to see and do – from world travel to exploring a new recipe – that it’s a struggle to make myself sit down at the computer, because I know once I get into my fictional world I’ll be there for hours and hours. Does that sound weird, that I find it challenging to sit down and write because when I do I don’t want to stop? If so, so be it.

Do you have to travel much concerning your book(s) or do guest appearances?

I love to travel, period. I would love to travel to promote my books and would do so happily, if someone else would pay for it. I also try to write a book for every place The Husband and I travel – it makes most of the trip tax-deductible as a business expense.

Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?

Being a research geek, I learn from every book I do, happily collecting odd facts like a squirrel collects nuts, as The Husband says. As for a specific example, there’s no way I can recall all of them, because there are so many! The last thing I remember learning that was totally different was for research for a romantic adventure I’m starting to work on, and that was the original builder of the dig house (which was built in the 1890s as a private residence) at El Kab (a Middle Kingdom archaeological site not far from Luxor, Egypt) is buried at the base of the house’s main stairs.

Do you have any advice for other writers?

Read. Write. Learn. Repeat ad infinitum.

Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?

Buy my books. I need the money.

What were the challenges (research, literary, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

Funny, I don’t find writing particularly challenging, at least not in the sense of overcoming difficulty. To me it’s like a hard-won game of chess – my characters are alive and real to me and I love outwitting them to make them do what I want. Sometimes they win, too. The Husband (a science rather than a word person) has become accustomed to my treating and talking about (and to!) my characters as if they were live and breathing creatures instead of imaginary constructs. As a friend said sympathetically to him one day, “Living with Susan must be verrrrry interesting!”

Thank you for reading!

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PS – And now, since I have your attention, I’m going to tease you with an excerpt from ECHOES IN THE DARK, a romantic adventure set in a derelict spa hotel in the wilds of Arkansas in 1963.

In 1963, famed photographer Alix Whittaker has problems – hallucinations from a head injury, a broken leg, an ex-husband with a new fiancée, a job with a third-rate archaeological dig, an unexpected murder and an overly attentive new suitor. Then she sees a very real ghost, and her problems really begin!

Excerpt : (which takes place in a neglected ballroom at the top of the old hotel)
“Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if we could have been here when this place was at its peak?” he asked suddenly, a completely new tone in his voice. “They used to hold balls here every Friday night. People would come from all over the country to take the waters and mingle with their peers at a Hidden Springs ball. The band would be over there.” He indicated an inconspicuous corner in the narrow angle of the odd-shaped room. “The chandeliers would be ablaze and all the doors would be open out onto the terrace. I would be wearing full evening kit.”

“White tie?” I asked lightly, drawn in spite of myself into the romance of his fantasy.

“Nothing less, Alix sugar. The room would be full of the crème de la crème, all in their best formal dress, but not one of them would be able to hold a candle to you, my beautiful, beautiful Miss Alix.”

I laughed and self-consciously ruffled my roughly-shorn mop. “You’ve had too much champagne if you think I’m beautiful.”

“But you are beautiful, Alix,” he replied earnestly. “What’s more, you are dressed for the occasion. Your hair is long again and piled up on top of your head with jeweled combs. You have on long white kid gloves that cover your arms. You are wearing a long dress, of course, an elegantly simple one made of emerald green satin. It’s cut low in front, but not too low, because you know I like you to look like a lady, and the full skirt makes a kind of a train behind you. Around your neck on a golden chain is a single, perfect emerald the size of a robin’s egg, and everyone who sees you knows that you belong only to me.”

Time didn’t slip and nothing changed. I knew I was still just plain Alix Whittaker, working photographer, dressed in jeans and a shirt and weighted down by a grubby cast. For just one magical moment under the spell Paul was so skillfully weaving, though, I was that other girl, pampered and lovely in the formal feathers of a different world. I could see Paul, too, tall and elegant in a black cutaway, white tie, and boiled shirt. They would suit him and he’d be even more handsome in old-fashioned evening clothes.

“I would come straight across the room to you,” Paul said dreamily then scrambled nimbly to his feet and suited action to his words. “Take your gloved hand in mine and kiss it. I’d dislike the proper white kid because it kept your flesh from mine, so I’d turn your hand over and kiss that small bit of bare skin on your wrist where you deliberately didn’t fasten all the buttons because you knew how much I liked to touch you with my lips.”

Paul bowed formally as he held my arm outstretched, his lips delicately seeking the sensitive skin of my inner wrist.

“How delightful to find you here, Mr. Galliard, suh,” I laughed breathily, entering into the spirit of his raillery with only a small sense of unease.

“Your servant, Miss Alix.” His eyes sparkled. “Always. May I have the pleasure of this dance?”

“Surely the band is taking a break?”

“We do not need a band, do we, Alix honey?”

I looked at his extended arms and was not sure if he were in the grip of a fantasy gone too far. With a gesture toward my cast, I said “I would enjoy it, but…”

“Surely you don’t think a little thing like that is going to keep me from the pleasure of a dance with you. Put your arms around my neck.” His eyes twinkled.

“Paul.”

“Put your arms around my neck, Alix honey.” With a consummate self-assurance, he slipped one lean, strong arm under my arms, the other beneath my knees and, with no visible effort, simply lifted me up. “Perhaps it’s not the most conventional of dances, but we are Galliards after all. Besides, isn’t the purpose of a dance for a man to be able to hold the lady of his choice in his arms?”

I put my arms around his neck and held on, not, as his smile seemed to indicate, for romantic purposes, but for protection. If he were going to go off dancing across that rough, curling floor while holding me up like that, I wanted some sort of security.

“Now isn’t this nicer?” Paul purred as he softly nuzzled my cheek. “Let the others talk if they will. The Galliards have always set their own fashion.”

To my relief he didn’t really dance, only moved gently in a slow turning motion. It didn’t fit any dance or music I could think of, but by that time, I was beyond critical thought. This was Romance with a capital R, and despite the fact the whole thing was slightly ridiculous, I was enjoying it as much as a little girl would a splendid game of make-believe. Leaning against Paul’s cheek, I closed my eyes and allowed fantasy to sweep me away. I was the girl in the flowing green satin dress, being whirled around a glorious ballroom by my handsome beau…

Paul stopped.

Zach stood in the grand doorway of the ballroom. His face was in shadow, so I couldn’t see his expression, but his very posture – shoulders hunched, hands jammed in pockets – radiated fury. When he spoke, however, his voice was calm and collected.

“When you’re finished,” he said coolly, “they need you downstairs. The sheriff is here.”

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